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The Influence of Anxiety: The Time Before

The Time Before


I know this is going to shock some of yas, so sit down. There was a time before Nirvana, and it was terrible. In the late 80s, all we had were Red Hot Chili Peppers, REM, and some bands no one really remembers. Hardcore had become boring and predictable, “alternative” was Human League and Depeche Mode, and the radio only played Michael Jackson. Music was essentially a vast wasteland with occasional sparks of light. Then 1991 came and Nirvana released Nevermind, and everything changed.

What it was, essentially, was the beginning (and sadly, the end) of marketing to Generation X. It was horrible and glorious. Because of the success of Nevermind, business-type people realized that there was money to be made off a generation of slackers.

A lot of great bands came out of that period, and some older bands became more popular because of the Cobain bump, Pixies and Sonic Youth among them. Kurt and friends made indie rock and indie labels cool, and we were all anxious to find the next new thing, which included the two bands at the center of Continuum’s recent 33-1/3 titles: Slint and Pavement. As Bryan Charles mentions in Wowee Zowee, the book about Pavement, people were just showing up at rock shows post-Nevermind to see if they liked the music. They were trying it on.

“Post-hardcore” band Slint released their second album, Spiderland, the same year that Nevermind came out. Had there not been a Nevermind, we would not be talking about Spiderland now. Slint were poised to be the next big thing. They were local faves, and their first album Tweez was produced by Steve Albini. But by the time Spiderland came out, Slint had broken up. They would not benefit from the Cobain bump.

In his examination of Spiderland, Scott Tennent sets out to make a case for the album being as important as Nevermind. He doesn’t come close, but nevertheless, the book is an easy way to become well acquainted with an unfamiliar band. Many of the members have gone on to do things infinitely more successful than Slint (members have played with Gastr del Sol, Interpol, and the Breeders), but music nerds still geek out over that Spiderland album.

Slint had played together since high school, and in fact some members had put their college careers on hold to record Spiderland—even now we’re not used to serious and challenging bands being so young (and no, Miley Cyrus doesn’t count). Tennett culls articles and interviews to draw a picture of a band of smart and talented youngsters that didn’t completely know what they were doing until the Spiderland sessions, and then it all sadly imploded. While reading this, all I kept thinking was “they were in HIGH SCHOOL.” Care Bears on Fire are in high school too, and I love them, but they are not game-changers.

I have a distinct memory of seeing Slint at The Pyramid, maybe at a CMJ show, but I’m pretty sure that memory is incorrect. I’m not sure they ever made it out of the Midwest. But I know I heard them—they were in constant play at various friends’ apartments, the slurring drums and shouted poems (their lyrics were much more like poetry than other bands) weaving a big carpet of noise. They were almost like a cross between Wire and Henry Rollins, I remember thinking. I remember thinking “I hate this,” and I remember thinking, “I’ve never heard anything like this,” and “I could do this,” and “This is brilliant.” Most of my friends agreed, except with the “I hate this” part—everyone else always loved them.

And therein lay the tragedy of Slint: They could have been game-changers. They were post-punk, but not grunge. They were markedly different from Nirvana, even though they appealed Gen Xers. We will never know what would have happened if they toured for Spiderland. Perhaps there would have been no room on the radio for Soundgarden’s “Spoonman,” and wouldn’t that have been glorious. But Tennett never really makes his case for Spiderland being so influential. The book relies on descriptions of the band’s politics and relationships, with each other and with other bands, and features only one chapter specifically about the music on Spiderland. Readers will have to go and listen for themselves.

On the other hand, Pavement stuck around and thus were able to reap some of the benefits of Nirvana fever. I can’t say that Pavement would have been less popular if it weren’t for Nirvana… well, maybe I can say that. There was an excitement that overflowed to the indie bands on the indie labels, and Pavement got some of that. But it was Pavement themselves that kept fans coming back and kept their audience growing.

Pavement fans were a smaller, more exclusive group than Nirvana fans. We were music lovers or musicians, we were well-educated, and we lived through the 80s and never wore Izod shirts. We liked Revenge of the Nerds more than Porky’s. We were outcasts, introspective, bookish, which is why is makes perfect sense that Bryan Charles chose to write about Wowee Zowee, a relatively unpopular Pavement album.

There’s not all that much history or analysis in Charles’s monograph of Wowee Zowee. It’s a different type of 33-1/3: half-personal essay about a writer’s relationship with an album, half long interviews with band members. Charles writes about his experiences with Wowee Zowee, and before he begins to intertwine the interviews late in the book it seems like Tao Lin writing about Pavement. Charles writes around Pavement. Writing about getting a Pavement CD, Charles begins writing about a girl he dated: “She’d call me crying, threatening suicide. She’d drop by at odd times, uninvited, spewing venomous remarks. She snuck into the pad when no one was there and wrote the word home on the wall over my bed in her own blood.” It’s at this girl’s house, where she lived with some speed freaks, that Charles finds a Pavement CD and takes home.

Then there are the interview chapters, and Charles allows readers into his head some more, telling us about the anxiety building up to his phone call to frontman Stephen Malkmus, his disappointment with the answers to the questions he emailed to Matador Records founder Gerard Cosloy. You rarely hear these sorts of confessions from writers, and not only does it make for fascinating reading, but it draws a picture of what sort of person prefers Wowee Zowee above all other Pavement albums.

Malkmus confesses that he was surprised by Pavement’s inclusion in slacker culture: “There was ‘Cut Your Hair’ and all of a sudden there was this alternative nation. We didn’t expect to be a part of it.” I don’t think any of us who lived through it expected to be a part of it. We were never a part of anything. But for a brief, wonderful time everything was for us.

(January 2011)